Memories of the Mid-Century Flu Outbreak

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As the U.S. finds itself in the worst flu epidemic in years, I take a look back to the winter of 1957 when the Asiatic Flu terrorized the nation, and hit close to home.

1957 was a gloomy winter; as bitter cold as Frost Bite Falls.

Mom felt ambushed.

Despite all her precautions, by late January she started sending out distress signals. Knocked out with the all too familiar quartet of body aches, fever, sniffles and cough, our germ proof house had been invaded; Mom got the flu.

As obsessed as my father was with the Cold War, my mother was equally concerned about the war on colds.

To each end they were constantly on alert for unseen, unknown, camouflaged enemies ready to insinuate themselves into our safe environment.

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 I was always told the best way to avoid contagious diseases, was to avoid any and all contact with anyone coughing or sneezing in your immediate perimeter. Like a heat seeking missile, a careless sneeze, or an explosive cough could shoot troublesome germs in your direction at a mile a minute speed.

Choose One from Column A  and One From Column B

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Always convinced it was the sub gum chow mein that was the culprit, Mom was sure she had seen the waiter at Chung King Gardens, sneeze into her food. Dad, on the other hand, was sure the guilty party was to be found at Ming’s Chinese Laundry where Mom dropped off his shirts every week. Ming’s wife always seemed to have a hacking cough, as she sprayed his Van Heusen shirts with heavy starch.

Whatever the origin, that January Mom came down with a nasty case of the Asiatic Flu that was spreading through the country.

Everyone was panicking- yet another invisible invader that could attack without warning. Like a Soviet Satellite, it was traveling around the world at alarming speed.

The flu was on the march, and health authorities everywhere were girding for battle against an epidemic. While the government was working like mad to get a vaccine available, that pesky little devil of a virus snuck into Moms bloodstream when no one was looking.

health germs cold war castro

Just as an opportunist, Fidel Castro had recently emerged triumphant out of the groundswell of discontent in Cuba, so a run-down Mom had been susceptible to catch a bug. “Like the Communists in Cuba,” Dad grumbled derisively, “the flu had infiltrated the United States and established a beachhead in our very own home”.

According to Dad the Castro menace was not imaginary.

That a bearded, bombastic young man on a small island -who looked for all the world like Frito Bandito –“Ay Yaye yaye yaye I am Frito Bandito; I love Frito Corn Chips I love them I do; I want Frito Corn Chips I get them from you”- could so menace an entire hemisphere seems almost inconceivable. But panicked Americans were convinced charismatic Castro and his Communist confederates were aiming to undermine the influence of the US and break its ties through Latin America.

We had to keep Castro’s poison from spreading any deeper.  Much like President Eisenhower, who wanted to rid our Western Hemisphere of the red rash just ninety miles from Florida, Mom wanted to halt further aggression of the flu on Western Park Drive.

The flu had brutally taken over much of the Eastern seaboard this winter and like the insurgent Communists, posed a grave threat to the free healthy members of our house. Both situations required a corrective.

Asiatic Flu

Asiatic Flu Red China Mao

 Asiatic flu was a new and highly infectious form of influenza which had originated in Red China.

Dad was certain this latest epidemic was true germ warfare, certain that Chairman Mao had something to do with the virus’s Great Leap Forward.

Previously, the Chinese had bitterly accused congenial, fair-minded Americans, of secretly using germ warfare during the Korean conflict, and now Dad was sure they were retaliating. The Chinese themselves were on the march towards massive power.

“The Red Army had a bloody record of aggression in Korea and Quemoy,” Dad griped, “and now their damn Commie Virus had invaded us.”

Fowl Play

Once Mom’s fever rose above 101, the cold war got hot.

Just as our government had devised “Operation Mongoose”, a plan to overthrow Castro’s regime, together my parents adopted a course of pre- emptive and covert action that they hoped would work. The flu had penetrated through our fortifications, and a can-do-decisive Dad had a battle plan of his own: Operation Chicken Soup.

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Jewish Penicillin

His Mission:  intercept and render the flu inoperable.

Dad quickly mobilized and called for reinforcements.  Acute care services were  brought in immediately.

On the right flank was family physician Dr. Epstein, a proponent of biological and chemical warfare. He was at a disadvantage in utilizing the new flu vaccine, knowing, sadly, it was too late to be effective. Imposing a containment policy for Mom, he ordered enforced bed rest, plenty of liquids and Bayer aspirin.

On the left flank my grandmother Nana Sadie, who would be deployed from Manhattan the next day at 0:800. A  decorated Veteran of the Flu Epidemic of 1918 she was armed to battle the enemy the best way she knew how, arriving loaded down with shopping bags filled with cans of disinfectants and a cache of secret ingredients for her chicken soup.

Despite the fact that mid-century doctors were at the pinnacle of authority figures. Nana Sadie had an inherent mistrust of Doctors, being of the opinion that most of them were just a step above witch doctors.

This distrust stemmed from her childhood and her own mother. Great Grandma might say “he’s a good doctor may we never need him! You know doctors, for every one thing they tell you, there are two things hidden under the tongue.” Jewish mothers may have wanted their own sons to become doctors, but didn’t want one visiting their house.

 Ever the trooper, Mom hated being barricaded in her bedroom. Even doped up on Nyquil, she found staying in bed demoralizing, and a dereliction of duty. She had been decommissioned from household operational services and now Nana Sadie would be deputized as chief cook and bottle washer.

Dad barked orders at all of us: Were we doing all we could in combating and exposing infectious germs. Or were we complacent, while the insurgents try to seize power.

Copyright (©) 2013 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Memories of the Mid-Century Flu Outbreak: PT II « Envisioning The American Dream

  2. Pingback: The Cold Wars: Nothing to Sneeze At « Envisioning The American Dream

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